How to get the most out of your LE career: Stress management

Too many officers turn to unhealthy options to hide from the stresses and emotions that come with our profession

As I prepare to step away from my career as a law enforcement officer after 21 years, I felt an overwhelming need to share my experience with as many others as possible.

For me, there have been four steps I have taken during my police career that is allowing me to leave physically and mentally fit so that I can enjoy the next phase of my life.

In my previous article, I wrote about the first step, which is remembering your purpose. This month I address the second step: stress management.

Living within your financial means will greatly reduce your stress levels.
Living within your financial means will greatly reduce your stress levels. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Step Two: Stress Management

When we step into a law enforcement career we all know the physical dangers we are accepting. Our training prepares us for the dangerous situations we face – the life and death encounters that require us to make split-second decisions. What we are not as well prepared for is how to deal with the stress associated with not only the calls we face, but the internal (both personal and organizational) processes we go through daily. Too many officers turn to unhealthy options as a means of suppressing, hiding from or just not wanting to deal with the stresses and emotions that come with our profession.

For me, I focused on three things to manage the stress of the job during my career:

1. My fitness 

I knew the increase in officer safety, command presence and decision-making skills that came with being physically fit, but exercise also provided me a healthy outlet to process my internal stresses.

Working out gave me the opportunity to interact with people outside the career field, to balance out the conversations I was around and to remind myself of the many good people in the world. It helped prepare me for life after law enforcement knowing I am physically able to do the things I enjoy. I kept all my fitness test scores over my career and would always compare them to what I was able to do when I first started. I am proud of the fact I’m retiring having been able to fit into the same size uniform my whole career.

2. My emotions

The emotional well-being of our officers is starting to receive more attention from agencies around the country and that is a good thing. Our culture is shifting from one where we pretend nothing ever bothers us, to one where we can have honest talks about our emotional health.

I still remember having a young girl die in my arms during one of my first shifts after field training. I can picture her face and have vivid memories of administering CPR, and the smells and noises I experienced just like I was there. Unfortunately for me and most of us in this career field in the 1990s, you never admitted when something bothered you. So, like many of you would have done, after this little lady was taken away in the ambulance, I went home, showered to get her vomit off me, changed uniforms and went right back out to answer calls until my shift ended. For years I never talked about this call to anyone, yet every time the medical tone came over my radio, I had an internal stress response and prayed I was not the closest one to the call. It was not until about a dozen years into my career that I began to share this story with others and realized how good it made me feel to share my feelings. Processing my emotions and fears associated with this call allowed me to heal and move on.

If a call bothers you, has you struggling with memories, prevents sleep, or you just know you are not feeling right, please talk with a teammate, supervisor, peer support member, department chaplain or psychologist. You do not need to deal with the pain on your own.

3. My finances

Living within your financial means will greatly reduce your stress levels. Knowing you can enjoy your days off without having to work all of them to provide for your basic needs is a big relief.

Following this philosophy has been one of the best things I have done for myself and my family over the years. Maximizing your retirement contributions so that you can leave the profession on your terms provides great peace of mind.

When I was a young recruit, one of my mentors told me to be mindful of my finances and that out of control bills and debt was one of the easiest ways to ruin your police career. His advice was always present in my mind as I saw many examples of other officers who bought the biggest houses in the neighborhoods and the newest, fanciest cars, yet worked all their days off just to get by. I have watched as they stayed in the career field out of financial necessity, no longer for the love of making a difference and the purpose they once had.

By managing your finances early in your career and maximizing your retirement contributions – even when it seems so far away – you are set up to greatly reduce one of the primary stressors for all people, money!

In my next article I discuss step three: self-assessment.

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